The DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel said the Democratic-led House Ways and Means Committee had made a request with a legitimate legislative purpose to see Trump’s tax returns, with a stated objective of assessing how the IRS audits presidents’ tax returns.
That 39-page opinion is a reversal of an opinion by the same office, during the Trump administration, which had backed the IRS’ refusal to give the committee Trump’s returns.
Under federal law, the tax-related committees of Congress have a “broad right” to obtain taxpayer information from the Treasury Department, the IRS’ parent, the new opinion noted.
“The statute at issue here is unambiguous: ‘Upon written request’ of the chairman of one of the three congressional tax committees, the Secretary ‘shall furnish’ the requested tax information to the Committee,'” Friday’s opinion said.
US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon arrival at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on September 20, 2018. – Trump is heading to Las Vegas for a campaign rally.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
While those committees cannot force the executive branch of the government to compel disclosure of that information, the opinion noted that tax returns should be denied to the committees “only in exceptional circumstances,” and when that request “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.”
The opinion said that the OLC “went astray” in 2019 by suggesting that the executive branch should “closely scrutinize the Committee’s stated justifications for its requests” in a way that failed to give due respect and deference to the legislative branch of government.
The decision comes more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court said that Trump’s tax returns and other financial records had to be turned over by his longtime accountants to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., because of a subpoena issued as part of criminal probe.
The Trump Organization and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, were charged July 1 by Vance with crimes related to an alleged scheme since 2005 to avoid the payment of taxes on compensation for the CFO and other top executives.
Trump broke decades of precedent as both a presidential candidate and occupant of the White House by refusing to voluntarily release his income tax returns.
He had said his returns were under audit by the IRS as a justification for not disclosing the returns.
But there is no prohibition on taxpayers releasing their returns to the public even when those returns are being audited.
The Justice Department’s opinion, coming as it does under an attorney general, Merrick Garland, picked by President Joe Biden, is likely to ire Trump.
A spokeswoman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said in a statement, “As I have maintained for years, the Committee’s case is very strong and the law is on our side.”
“I am glad that the Department of Justice agrees and that we can move forward,” Neal said.
Neal’s committee in July 2019 had sued the Treasury Department and the IRS to obtain Trump’s tax returns after then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the head of the tax agency defied subpoenas demanding six years’ of Trump’s personal and business returns. Mnuchin at the time contended that the committee had no legitimate legislative purpose in seeking the documents.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a statement, said, “Today, the Biden Administration has delivered a victory for the rule of law, as it respects the public interest by complying with Chairman Neal’s request for Donald Trump’s tax returns.”
“As Speaker, on behalf of the House of Representatives, I applaud Chairman Neal for his dignified pursuit of the truth and the Biden Administration Department of Justice for its respect for the law,” Pelosi said.
“Access to former President Trump’s tax returns is a matter of national security,” she said. “The American people deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts of interest and undermining of our security and democracy as president.”